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Organic Gardening 101: How to Start a Garden and Keep It Healthy

Zazel Loven is an organic gardening expert. Read on to find out how she keeps her soil nutrient dense and her plants happy without the use of any chemicals. Her first piece of advice: Keep it simple -- the building blocks for an organic garden start from the ground up.

I garden organically because I like to save money and time and don't know how to garden any other way. Why would I spend time trying to figure out which chemical fertilizers and pesticides to buy when I can do what is best for my plants myself? Healthy soil, sunlight, and water is all your plants need to flourish.


Nourish the Soil

The year I started my garden, I got a truckload of aged horse manure delivered by my local farmer. This, and other organic matter, adds beneficial microorganisms that aerate the soil, allowing plant roots to grow and take in water and nutrients. The healthier the soil, the more it will fend off plant diseases and pests: It’s a win/win starting place for growing organically.


Get your soil tested and ask for advice from your Cooperative Extension, which is a service provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you bring in a soil sample, the extension agent will (for a small charge) send it out for testing and then recommend what natural additives will boost the quality of your garden soil (if it is in some way depleted). Take advantage of the help it offers by reaching out to the Extension office in your area.


To make your own fertilizer, start a compost pile for food scraps such as egg shells, mussel shells, and vegetable/fruit peels, etc. -- no meat please. You don't need much room to start composting; and you can even buy a convenient contained compost bin that will keep out animals and diminish any unpleasant odors. To this pile, frequently add grass clippings and leaves, and turn the mixture with a garden fork. As it ages and decomposes, what you will get in return is a dark, rich soil we call "black gold." My compost pile doesn’t produce a lot of this, but it makes me feel good to compost food scraps and green waste and watch it transform into food for the earth.


Protect Your Soil

If you live somewhere with a cold winter, it's important to protect your soil from the elements. In the fall, since we are in New England, I rake up the leaves and let the leaf shredder cut them up into bits, which I spread all over the garden soil for the long winter sleep. As an alternative, you can buy a big bag of a cover-crop seeds, such as winter rye (an alternative to spreading mulched leaves on the garden). Rake the soil to loosen it, just a little, and then broadcast (toss) the cover-crop seeds all over the garden, using a rake to lightly work them into the dirt. Cover crops are a great method for improving the structure of garden soil. They are another way nature works to help us keep our gardens organic, plus they are lovely to look at. If I have planted a cover crop, and it’s not too cold, it will grow a little, then die back for the winter sleep, emerging as a field of green come spring. When the soil is warm enough to be planted, gently turn the crop back into the soil so as not to disturb it too much. 

Small pathways separate the plants in Zazel's garden.

Because I know the importance of fluffy, healthy soil, I don’t want to compact it by stepping, standing, or walking on the areas where the plants will grow. So, I have created pathways around mini-garden patches and raised beds that are a size I can easily reach into to pull the occasional weed or pluck a ready-to-eat tomato. Weeds are kept at bay in the paths by laying down old newspaper (black-and-white only) and covering it with wood-chip mulch -- though you can make a pathway from bricks, flat rocks, or gravel. If you prefer grass paths, make sure they are wide enough to push the mower through occasionally. Seedless straw can also be laid on the pathways and around the plants (leaving room around stems). It looks great and keep weeds down. Add another layer of protection by surrounding your garden with a small fence, it will help keep out, small hungry animals.


Practice Companion Planting

There are two additional easy practices that work well in an organic  garden: companion planting and planting in rotation. The science of companion planting is simple. Certain plants encourage each other by feeding the soil, while discouraging and confusing harmful insects. Native Americans knew the value of this, and most of us are familiar with the three sisters -- corn, beans, and squash -- a growing technique that was their gift to the early settlers. I always buy a few flats of African marigolds and plant these hardy beauties near my tomato seedlings. Herbs such as oregano and basil are also good companions, though some research is required to know which companions to plant. This convenient chart can be used as a quick reference tool for beginners.

Companion planting in action.

Plant in Rotation

When planning your garden, no matter how small, avoid repeat planting of the same plants in the same spot. For example, beans and peas are good for the soil, leaving behind nitrogen, which will make your leafy crops such as kale thrive during the following year’s growing season. A simple sketch each year will let you remember what was planted where and help discourage soil-borne diseases. Two more tips for successful growing: Drag a bag of fish emulsion or natural compost around as you plant, and throw a handful into each seedling hole or along a row that is ready for seeds. As you seed, make sure you leave room between plants for them to grow. It took me ages to stop planting too close together when seedlings are tiny: plants need air circulation to thrive.


Learn to Love the Bugs

A thrill for me as an organic gardener is seeing the life in the soil and garden, none of which seems to bother my plants. My garden is full of earthworms and lots of little beneficial insects going every which way. I take this as a good sign and take pleasure in watching the worms burrowing into the soil, aerating just as nature intended. Birds and rabbits are always stopping by….I grow enough lettuce for everyone, and I imagine the birds are hoping to find some seeds spilled on the ground. Growing organically also means welcoming creatures into the garden to do the work nature intended. So I grow a selection of flowers that attracts bees, and they are fascinating to watch. A few rows of sunflowers also bring wildlife to my organic garden, along with their majestic beauty. The bees love them, and in the fall, the birds fatten up for winter on the tasty seeds. To me, welcoming nature into my garden is a joy, and one of the many reasons I grow organically.


Photography by Joi Ito and Zazel Loven.